Giving stands as one of the greatest demonstrations of love there is. Entire passages within the New Testament explain not only the need for giving, but offer detailed advice on how to give. In modern times, many churches refer to giving as “tithes and offerings,” but does the Bible really speak of such things when speaking of giving? It should be noted that the bulk of Christian tradition in regards to tithing comes from Catholic church law, perhaps as early as the sixth century A.D. from the Second Council of Tours. We see a gap of several centuries between the teachings of Christ and the origins of the modern institution of tithing. How, then, did the early Christians give?
The short answer is that they did not tithe.
The long answer requires a proper understanding of what the tithe entailed. Let’s look at a slew of Old Testament verses mentioning the tithe.
Deuteronomy 26:12 (ESV) “When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year, which is the year of tithing, giving it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your towns and be filled.”
The tithe specifically refers to produce, i.e., food. In the King James Version, “increase” is used
instead of “produce,” but increase of what? Verse 1 provides the answer.
“When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance and have
taken possession of it and live in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground,
which you harvest from your land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a
basket, and you shall go to the place that the LORD your God will choose, to make his name to
dwell there.” Deuteronomy 26:1-2 (ESV)
The first fruits, a special offering given only once when the Israelites claimed a plot of land, precedes the description of the tithe. The biblical tithe, therefore, was not monetary, but agricultural—money was not carried in a basket, but food was. Verse 14 even describes not eating the tithe casually or uncleanly, as it was sacred foodstuffs.
Leviticus 27:30-34 (ESV)
30 “‘A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord.
31 Whoever would redeem any of their tithe must add a fifth of the value to it.
32 Every tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the Lord.
33 No one may pick out the good from the bad or make any substitution. If anyone does make a substitution, both the animal and its substitute become holy and cannot be redeemed.’”
34 These are the commands the Lord gave Moses at Mount Sinai for the Israelites.
The 1/10th contribution from the land had to come from the land, and if the land did not yield enough to constitute a tenth, then there could be no tithe. That is to say, God did not command the first animal, but the tenth. If there was only nine animals, then there could be no tithe. That distinction becomes lost in a monetary system where everything can be assigned a dollar value, but when looked at under the proper context of Scripture, it becomes very clear.
Many modern Christians may be astounded to learn that tithing almost never referred to money, but that was the understanding of the first century Christians all the way through the Middle Ages. In 1285 the Statute of Westminister, an actual law written for the benefit of the Catholic Church in England, specifically set aside products from the land to be claimed by the Vatican (although it went above and beyond by adding products of industry to the tithe as well, meaning that ten percent of all goods produced was claimed by the Vatican in addition to natural produce). Monetary donations were always accepted, but never in the form or function of a “tithe.” You can read more about the Catholic tradition of tithing here. It is therefore a very modern development to “tithe” from one’s income.
Originally the tithe was the Levites’ inheritance. Since the tribe of Levi was not apportioned land like the other tribes, they were to receive ten percent of the land’s harvest. Deuteronomy 18:1-2 not only explains that, but it reinforces the tithe as that which is to be eaten. What becomes very interesting is that while the Levites were required to present a tenth of the tithe (tithe of the tithe) back to the nation, the Catholic councils and canons did not replicate that requirement.
Numbers 18:25 (ESV) And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
26 “Moreover, you shall speak and say to the Levites, ‘When you take from the people of Israel
the tithe that I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall present a
contribution from it to the LORD, a tithe of the tithe.
27 And your contribution shall be counted to you as though it were the grain of the threshing floor, and as the fullness of the winepress.
28 So you shall also present a contribution to the LORD from all your tithes, which you receive
from the people of Israel. And from it you shall give the LORD’s contribution to Aaron the priest.
Once again, we see this was not a monetary contribution or offering, nor was it related to earned wages. The people of Israel did not tithe from their earnings, but from the increase of the land—produce and flocks. While the landowners tithed their crops and livestock, the shepherds, gatherers, and tradesmen did not tithe from their earnings. Even fishermen and hunters did not tithe from their gains. Rather than an income tax, the tithe was more of a capital gains or property tax. And the Levites were not exempt, for they had to withhold a portion of their inheritance within the tithe system.
But to whom did their tithe go?
There are several scriptural references to the tithe, but only one passage actually explains what it is through a detailed description of the process. As such, every doctrine and teaching regarding the tithe must be in harmony with this passage in order to be considered biblical.
Deuteronomy 14: 22 (ESV) “You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field
year by year.
23 And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell
there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your
herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always.
24 And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there,
25 then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses
26 and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink,
whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice,
you and your household.
27 And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or
inheritance with you.
28 At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same
year and lay it up within your towns.
29 And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the
fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled,
that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.”
There are a number of details that are confirmed in this passage:
1) The tithe is from the “yield of the seed from the field” as well as the herds of animals.
2) The collection was to be eaten before the Lord “in the place He shall choose,” which during
the time of the Judges was the city of Shiloh, and, later on, Jerusalem.
3) If your tithe was too large to transport (several hundred bushels of grain or head of livestock,
for example), then you could convert it into money and use that money to purchase any
foodstuffs you desired in the place of national congregation. This is the only connection that
money ever has with the biblical tithe; a placeholder for large amounts of food.
4) Levites were to be included in the national celebration, since they were not allowed to own
land and so had no personal yield from it.
5) The ‘tithe’ portion was figured annually—one tenth of your harvest and livestock
increase—and it was to be dispensed every three years. After the Levite took his portion, the
remainder would be left for foreigners, orphans, and widows, none of whom could own land.
There is absolutely nothing in this passage that institutes a biblical mandate to render a tenth of your personal wealth to anyone or anything; it’s just not there. And as the definitive passage in the Bible regarding instructions on the tithe, it cannot be ignored. While we are free to give our money to whomever we desire, there is no justification for demanding contributions, whether in the form of money or anything else.
But what of Melchizedek?
There are those who, upon learning that God never asked for monetary tribute, would look to Genesis 14 for some sort of ancient precedent for tithing goods. The Catholic tithing tradition certainly made that same appeal.
To be brief, Genesis 14 describes Abraham going after some bandits who kidnapped his nephew Lot and returned with spoils of war. Several kings met his return. Abraham gave the first tenth of the spoils to the High Priest of God, Melchizedek, and let the other kings divide the rest among themselves—he specifically said he would keep nothing, as he promised God that he would not claim anything not specifically given to him by God. This wasn’t a biblical “tithe from his increase” mandate because 1) it was ill-gotten gains taken from bandits; 2) he refused ownership of the spoils, handing them over to the ancient kings of Canaan, and let the righteous king have first pick; 3) finally, the goods were not harvested from any land of covenant.
Clearly, this has nothing to do with Christian-giving nor even with the Old Testament tithing law or even later Catholic tradition. The only thing Genesis 14 has in common with any system of tithing is the one-tenth percentage claimed by Melchizedek.
But what about Jesus’ command for people to tithe?
Having established what tithing actually was, let’s pay close attention to the very words of Jesus.
Matthew 23:23 (ESV) “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you
tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of
the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done,
without neglecting the others.”
The Pharisees were renowned for their offerings at the Temple. They would often drop one coin at a time into the jar in order for everyone to hear the clinking and echoing made by each one—entire handfuls, taking several moments, were offered in this manner. Jesus was pointedly condemning the public demonstration of tithing when it was meant to substitute dealing justly, honestly, and compassionately with one’s neighbor.
When it came to the tithe, many Pharisees were urban dwellers and did not own land in which to grow crops and raise livestock, which meant they had no opportunity to tithe. To remedy that, many Pharisees began to plant little herb gardens near their homes with the express purpose of, perhaps even for no reason other than to, offer one-tenth of their herbs to the local Levite.
If there was a way to simply give money in place of the tithe—from their wages, from their investments, from anything other than mint, dill, and cumin—then surely they would have simply done so rather than grow herbs that were virtually worthless and devoid of any other value. As it was, even the New Testament’s most famous legalists were unable to exact a tithe from money. Moreover, it would not be out of line to presume that the Pharisees also felt exempted from giving to the poor they passed on the way to the Temple because they were presenting their tithes of herbs to the Levites.
But what about the curse?
Anyone who has heard a sermon on tithing has indubitably heard the following passage recited.
Malachi 3:8-12 (ESV)
8 Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’
In your tithes and contributions.
9 You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you.
10 Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my
house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not
open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until
there is no more need.
11 I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of
your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the LORD of hosts.
12 Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says
the LORD of hosts.
There are similar reproofs and promises in the Old Testament (such as the entire book of Haggai) against those who had broken God’s commandments. The empty storehouse was proof positive that the tithes were suffering. But while the entire nation was under a curse, was it due to the failure of the landowners, farmers, and ranchers to give their tithe to the Levites? Not necessarily. Storehouses were administered by Levites, so when they came up empty, it was ultimately because the Levites neglected to keep them filled.
Nehemiah 10:38 (ESV) “And the priest, the son of Aaron, shall be with the
Levites when the Levites receive the tithes. And the Levites shall bring up
the tithe of the tithes to the house of our God, to the chambers of the
It wasn’t the tithe-giver’s responsibility to fill the storehouse, but the Levite’s. When the storehouses went empty, it often meant that the foreigner, widow, and orphan went hungry. As previously established, the Levites were supposed to set aside a “tithe of the tithe,” and God’s storehouse is where that was held. When the Levites weren’t tithing, the entire nation suffered.
The blessing and curse, therefore, began with the priesthood—when the Levites put their faith in God by putting their tithe in the storehouses as they were supposed to, even in lean times, then it would lead to renewal and surplus for the entire nation.
As the collection of tithes and administration of God’s storehouse was very important, only verified sons of Aaron were permitted to do so. Anyone who could not prove their Levitical lineage was restricted from collecting a tithe.
Does this mean that people who financially support churches and ministries are giving in error? Perhaps, though probably not. The New Testament language describing the ministry and culture of financial giving is separate from Old Testament language of tithing, but giving is nonetheless an important pillar of our ministry on Earth. By now it should be abundantly clear that the exhortations for financial giving in the New Testament should be read apart from the false context of tithing.
Luke 6:37 “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven;
38 give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”
This passage has been quoted for decades over many an offering plate, but the message here is not “give money to a church and be blessed,” but rather, “don’t be self-centered.” The “give and it will be given to you” principle is a demonstration of the laws of the Kingdom of Heaven, sort of like the laws of physics here on Earth. The Kingdom law of giving explains the unlimited abundance of God’s goodness. Rather than hoard 90% of our resources because God gets to take His 10% off the top, Jesus would have us consider everything we own as belonging to God. Anyone who thinks otherwise is deemed a fool by Christ (Luke 12:16-21), and anyone who hates the idea of giving away all they own will not find comfort from Jesus (Mark 10:17-27). The blessing from God comes from recognizing and honoring the stewardship that He has bestowed upon us; that everything we have comes from Him; and that we are to give as freely as we have received.
To say that Jesus’ promise of abundance is directly and primarily proportionate to church-giving alone is like saying that since Newton’s law of gravity “what comes up must come down” was explained by a falling apple means that gravity should apply primarily to apples. Observation alone is enough to rule that out.
Kingdom Law: Give like there’s more where it came from, whether it’s to a church, ministry, a
poor family, a sick relative, a friend in need, or the less fortunate stranger in your path, and
you will have more than you need—what Jesus wants is that we simply stop hoarding resources like misers.
To put a fine point on it: If you are unable or unwilling to financially bless the poor in your community because you are giving your disposable income to your church building, then you are leaving God’s storehouse empty. Any Christian who does not provide for their impoverished family “has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever,” and no amount of church-giving will reduce that charge.
How then shall we give?
2 Corinthians 9:5 (ESV) So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on
ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that
it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction.
6 The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and
whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.
7 Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under
compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
You must give what you have purposed in your heart to give. If that is 10%, then 10% is how you shall be blessed. If you give more, then more shall be added unto you with the caveat that it may not have a dollar sign attached. God’s provision is more than money can buy, after all. If you have purposed in your heart to financially support a church building in your community, then that is a wonderful thing that needs to be celebrated as such rather than being treated as a spiritual requirement. There is certainly no place for condemnation or cursing fellow Christians for not following a ritualized system of giving.
Christian-giving, therefore, is distinct from Old Testament tithes and offerings in a number of
1) Christian-giving often refers to money, whereas Old Testament tithes never referred to money.
2) Christian-giving is a voluntary gift and not extortion, whereas Old Testament tithes were compulsory demands.
3) Christian-giving is self-governed with various amounts, whereas Old Testament tithes were a fixed percentage overseen by priests.
4) Christian-giving is pointless if done with reluctance, whereas Old Testament tithes were required despite the feelings of the giver.
Any church which regularly passes the offering plate ought to follow the model given in Acts to one degree or another. Indeed, it is the only justification Paul ever gave for collecting financial contributions (1 Cor 16:1–4; 2 Cor 8:1–9:15; Rom 15:25-28).
Acts 4:32-35 (ESV)
32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
The Book of Acts does not advance or promote one economic theory over another. It merely speaks of the voluntary charitable contributions of the first Christians in support of one another. There is no ritualism involved, nor is there any New Testament demonstration of monetary contributions being utilized in a worship service, as the scriptural references we’ve examined clearly state.
Regardless of how anyone chooses to give, the common denominator which ought to unify every preferred system of giving is this: Give until it hurts. Bless everyone in your path. Be a good neighbor, like the Samaritan, the surprise hero in Jesus’ parable of negligent and self-centered religious folks who probably tithed faithfully from their herb gardens yet did not part with their money to aid another without a perceived benefit from God. No matter how you choose to give (and God makes it clear that it must be a choice rather than an obligation), don’t live under a curse whether you give above or below ten percent, for the Bible tells us to give from what we have rather than from what we do not (2 Corinthians 8:12). The world and everything in it already belongs to God anyway (Psalm 24:1). Give away your fortune or your two pence like the impoverished widow in Luke 21:1-4 and receive your Heavenly Father’s favor.